Gunmen have attacked a hotel in central Mali used by United Nations staff, killing at least five people and exchanging fire with troops encircling the building, residents and military sources have said.

A United Nations employee was among those killed on Friday when the fighters attacked the hotel, the country's peacekeeping mission MINUSMA said.

"Reports indicate that a member of the international personnel associated with MINUSMA was killed during the attack," the mission said in a statement. It did not give the victim's nationality.

Malian military officials also said on Friday that three Russian pilots were believed to have been kidnapped during the attack in the town of Sevare, though the Russian embassy in Mali, speaking to the TASS press agency, denied this.

The attack well south of the Saharan desert strongholds of armed fighters highlights the threat posed by remnants of an al-Qaeda-linked insurgency that appears to be stepping up its campaign against Malian and UN troops.  

Moussa Bah, the owner of a hotel nearby, said he was told by military personnel that several people have been killed, including fighters and soldiers.

He said the hotel is frequented by pilots with the United Nations peacekeeping mission.

Ansar Dine, a Malian group with links to al-Qaeda, last month claimed responsibility for a series of attacks on UN peacekeepers [Reuters]

Smoke rose from the hotel and heavy weapons fire was heard as government forces moved in to dislodge the gunmen, who stormed the building near the airport in Sevare, around 600 km northeast of the capital Bamako, before 8am local time.

At least four Malian soldiers died in the clashes and three others were wounded, military officials said.

Two attackers, one strapped with explosives, also died.

Military spokesman Souleymane Dembele said an east European and three other personnel from the MINUSMA, the UN peacekeeping operation, were believed to have escaped from the hotel. Nationals from South Africa, France and Ukraine were thought to have been staying there, he said.

Five hostage takers were believed to be inside the building, he added.

A 2013 French-led military operation succeeded in driving fighters out of cities and towns seized a year earlier in the west African nation's desert north.

Ansar Dine, a Malian group with links to al-Qaeda, last month claimed responsibility for a series of attacks on
UN peacekeepers and the Malian army in Bamako and areas near the Ivory Coast and Mauritania borders.

Suspected militants killed 11 soldiers in a raid on an army base near the ancient northern city of Timbuktu on Monday.

A military spokesman said on Thursday five people had been arrested in connection with the attack.

Source: Agencies